It’s fair to say that the music scene in the Irish Republic has always been distinct from that in the UK. It’s not uncommon for bands to be massive, having Number One hits in Ireland while being unknown in the UK and that’ s the way it is with Keywest. They’ve had two Number One albums in Ireland already and now they’re out to conquer the UK with their first album release here, “Ordinary Superhero”. It’s fair to say that in (fairly) recent years, bands taking this route have been aimed at the teen market and the pop charts; while Keywest have some radio-friendly tunes, there’s a lot more to this outfit than pop songs.

They got together busking in Ireland, honing their craft in front of a constantly changing audience on the streets; it’s a harsh learning environment, but the survivors have to be good and they have to know how to hold an audience. I’ve seen Keywest live a couple of times and I know for sure that they’ve achieved both of those goals. It was a live performance in Camden in 2018 that led Steve Tannett, head of Marshall Records to sign them to the label in the UK.

“Ordinary Superhero” is a pretty good representation of where the band is at the moment. They’ve taken all the lessons learned from playing to audiences whose attention they had to grab instantly and created ten songs that fuse influences from pop, folk, rock, Celtic traditional and world music rhythms. The arrangements are built around big choruses and an effective use of dynamics with some Edge-style guitar parts (U2 had to get in there somehow) and emotive Andy Glover vocals, creating a wide soundscape with constant variations.

If you’re looking for standout songs, the floor tom-driven opener “Somebody to Love” with Big Country (or maybe Bryan Adams) guitar hooks is right up there. The title song praises mothers bringing up families in dire social conditions; it’s about an Irish mother, but the message is universal. “This is Heartbreak” features a standout vocal performance, pulling out every nuance of the immediate impact of a broken relationship perfectly.

Just one more thing. The album’s packed with great songs and performances, but it’s not the best way to get the Keywest experience. To get the best from Keywest, you need to see them live. They’re touring the UK in October to promote the album and the live experience is just something else.

“Ordinary Superhero” is released in the UK on Friday September 27th on Marshall Records (CD – R910.022, Vinyl – R920.009).

A new Rod Picott album is always something to look forward to. He’s an exceptional songwriter and his voice is a very effective vehicle for delivering those songs. It’s a voice that’s frayed around the edges and at times crackles with emotion. On “Tell the Truth and Shame the Devil”, Rod has stripped his delivery back to just guitar, harmonica and voice; oh, and the songs. Just to give this some context, the album was recorded after a health scare Rod had over the last winter (although not all of the songs are contemporary) and has a stark, sometimes brooding, feel mingled, unsurprisingly, with intimations of mortality, including the opening song “Ghost”, a brutally honest assessment of Rod’s current situation, and that of many others in similar positions. Confessional, hard-hitting singer-songwriter isn’t a particularly lucrative career path these days.

Rod recorded the entire album alone, without an engineer, before handing the tapes over to Neilson Hubbard (you might remember him if you’re a MusicRiot regular) for final production. If you want a benchmark, the finished article has the same feel as The Boss’s “Nebraska” and has similar lyrical themes of family, poverty and alienation. The result of this method is that the songs are stripped to their very essence with no distractions, emphasising the stories they have to tell and, as always with Rod Picott, they’re striking and memorable stories.

As a writer, Rod likes a metaphor; the murder ballad “Too Much Rain” uses a barren landscape to represent the failure of a marriage to blossom, while “Bailing” uses the idea of bailing literally and metaphorically, referring back to a flooded childhood cellar as a metaphor for the futility of activity that only serves to keep us in the same place. Rod also likes to bring a bit of autobiography into the mix; “Mark” is the story of an unexplained teenage suicide, while “Spartan Hotel” is that bar in any town where anything goes if you can pay the price. And don’t forget the social comment; “A Beautiful Light” aims straight the heart of those songwriters who try to glamourise the drudgery of blue-collar life as a means of social control.

This is the third Rod Picott album we’ve reviewed here and they’re consistently powerful pieces of work blending punchy stories of small-time America with haunting melodies in a voice that is both emotive and vulnerable. It’s probably the most personal of his recent albums and well worth a listen.

“Tell the Truth and Shame the Devil” is out now Welding Rod Records and Rod will be touring the UK in October.

Imagine a story that starts with a fanatical Jam fan in the town of Atherstone who draws pictures of the band’s album covers in his exercise books during lessons at school and fantasises about being in his own band. Imagine that kid forty years later turning to his right at Islington Assembly Hall and seeing Paul Weller making a guest appearance with the band, Stone Foundation, that the kid has played with and believed in for a huge chunk of his life. Now that would make a great story, wouldn’t it? Bloody right it would, especially when the kid is Neil Sheasby, known to fans of Stone Foundation for his gritty on-the-road diaries spilling all the gory details (and the pleasant surprises and triumphs) of life in a band in the 21st century.

Brother Sheas (as Paul Weller refers to him) is a natural storyteller, who’s never short of an opinion and has the knack of pacing the narrative perfectly, in a style that captures perfectly his spoken delivery and with an ability to deliver the killer punchline when it’s needed. I’m not going to spoil the book for you by retelling the stories – I mean, the whole point of this is to make you want to buy it and read it. The only spoiler I’m going with is that the story stops short of the formation of Stone Foundation (which I’m guessing will come with the second volume).

The story “Boys Dreaming Soul” tells is of passion for music, passion for the right clothes, riotous times and bad behaviour, life in a small working-class town (and I can relate to most of those) and a lifelong friendship that comes to define both of the people involved. Neil’s deadpan delivery is perfect for the music business anecdotes, but he’s equally effective with the serious business, and there’s a fair amount of that as well.

This book will make you laugh; it might make you cry. If you’re interested in music at all, and why are reading this if you aren’t, you’ll be fascinated by Neil’s stories of his various bands and nights out at music industry schmoozefests and the memories he evokes with playlists for each chapter of the book (Neil loves a playlist). He’s a very engaging author and he’s created a compelling memoir in “Boys Dreaming Soul”. It’s a story of complete commitment to an ideal whether times are good or bad, happy or sad. And it made me realise we were at the same gig in Nottingham thirty years ago.

It’s available at the main online stores but why not try here first. It’s out now.

It’s easy to be cynical about the whole remaster/rerelease game – it’s been abused by the music business for so long as a way of making the same material pay its way several times over. And then a 20-year anniversary of something like “Johnstown” comes along with a couple of really good reasons to make the effort. The technical one is that the vinyl release would demand a remaster and the commercial reason is that there are music-lovers that would have completely missed this in 1999 who are blown away by it in 2019; I’m right at the front of that queue.

In common with her autobiographical 2017 album “A Girl in Teen City”, “Johnstown” has a strong sense of place – the scene is set for the twelve stories against a backdrop of a town that has lived for decades with the ominous threat of floods. And just to ramp up the feeling of impending doom, the album opens with a minor-key murder ballad underpinned by distorted and menacing guitar. So that’s just the title song and I’m buying it already.

There genuinely isn’t a mediocre song on the album; they’re all right out of the top drawer and they’re a varied bunch in terms of themes and arrangements; “You’ll Always Be” is a relatively straightforward love song until an edge of shadow is added with a superbly atonal piano solo, while the hauntingly beautiful triple-time ballad “Alabaster” is wrapped in a minimalist arrangement that emphasises the individuality of Susie Ungerleider’s voice and the octave leaps that give the voice its unique quality. And so it goes, right up to the album’s final song, in triple-time again, the gorgeous “Tangled & Wild”, embellished by some keening pedal steel and bringing the album to a gentle close; but not quite.

That’s where the original album ended, but there are a few little surprises in the shape five stripped-back demo-style versions of songs from the album. I’m also cynical about the addition of ‘bonus’ tracks that are added to tempt the completist collector, but the additions here work well and they have all been previously commercially available as an EP. “Johnstown” proves that the song works without the album arrangement and “Alabaster” (which finally closes the album) is perfect as a solo piece. This is an album that I genuinely wish I’d heard twenty years ago and I’m sure I’ll be listening to in another twenty years.

“Johnstown” is released in the UK on Friday August 30th on Continental Song City (CSCCD 1164) and Oh Susanna will be touring the UK in early September.

It’s fair to say that this isn’t really my manor. Yeah, I love The Railway Hotel in Southend for many reasons, the first being the wonderful bunch of people who choose to drink there. It’s an old-fashioned boozer that has successfully resisted any vogueish makeovers and remains a pub for people that like pubs (oh, and music, definitely music). It’s the kind of place where musicians, artists and poets (and the occasional photographer) meet up to drink, politely and non-judgementally discuss each other’s work and the work of others and drink and then drink some more. I may have fabricated a piece of that last sentence; you decide which bit.

The reason for this trek out to Southend-on-Sea was the launch of books by Ralph Dartford and Phil Burdett and live performances by each of the authors. The last time I saw a live poetry event was nearly four years ago when Dr John Cooper Clarke supported Squeeze in Greenwich, which sets the bar fairly high. No worries on that score; Phil Burdett and Ralph Dartford had the goods and were ready to deliver.

Ralph Dartford

It’s no secret that both of these artists have had their demons and maybe still do; that’s where the authenticity shone out in both sets. Ralph Dartford opened reading selections from his current volume “Recovery Songs” packed with pathos, humour and stark social realism (“Addict” set the tone for Ralph’s performance) joined up by a seamless narrative which demonstrated some superb comic timing. The audience was Phil’s home crowd, but they were attentive and hugely appreciative during Ralph’s set. I recommend the book and you can get it here .

Phil Burdett

And the it was time for Phil Burdett, on a long and unpredictable journey from some very dark places indeed, to premiere his book of prose and poetry “Rhyming Vodka with Kafka”. Never one for convention, Phil delivered a mixture of readings from the book punctuated by songs old and new with support from fellow Southend legend Steve Stott on mandolin and fiddle (I’m not going to ask what happened to the banjo). For a first attempt at this format Phil nailed it, with the audience enthralled by the material and the delivery, pin-drop silent during the readings and wildly appreciative at the conclusions, particularly “The Bad Pub Guide” and “Dogs Accustomed to Loud Music”. Maybe a prophet can have honour in his own country.

Steve Stott

Bottom line – I loved both performances; the audience loved both performances. I bought both books; a lot of the audience bought both books. It’s a long time since I’ve seen an entire audience so totally immersed in a performance. Thank you Ralph Dartford and Phil Burdett for making me realise that I need more poetry in my life.

 

I guess this is one that was inevitable; a live album that was recorded almost by accident, just because they could, and what an interesting piece of work it is. Unusually, this didn’t grab the attention at the first listen and it wasn’t a grower. On about the fourth listen, the power of the lyrics suddenly hit home and everything started to fit together. Sam Baker’s songs are self-contained stories, told with perfect economy; there isn’t a superfluous word as he tells us about the kind of people we’re all surrounded by, whether we know it or not; the single mothers, the alcoholics, the drug addicts, the widows and the guilt-ridden all doing their best to make it through another day. It’s the life of a small Texas town told in twelve small but perfectly-formed chapters.

The delivery as a live performance matches up perfectly with the stark subject matter. Sam Baker relates the tales in a sung-spoken style that has hints of Tom Waits and an interesting minimalist picked electric guitar style (more about that later), plus a wooden block to tap out the tempo with a foot. It works perfectly because the stark arrangement focusses all the attention on the power of Sam’s writing and the stories of despair and injustice but, ultimately, hope.

Back to that thing about the guitar style. After surviving a terrorist bombing of a train in Peru, which nearly ended his life, Sam’s long and painful recovery eventually led to using his music as a therapy, which included learning to play an upside-down guitar to adjust to the loss of a large part of his left hand. The playing style he’s developed strips all of the arrangements back to basics, shining a spotlight on the beating, bleeding heart of each of the songs.

Highlights? “Mennonite” is a poignant story of an unlikely relationship and forms the centrepiece of the album, “Boxes” is a heart-rending tale of a Vietnam widow and “Odessa” deals with the tragic fallout from a spoilt, entitled upbringing. Seriously though, it’s all good and you get the chance to hear it live in the UK early next year.

“Horses and Stars” is released in the UK on Friday August 23rd.

Natalie Tena of Molotov Jukebox

…….. and helps keep me sane.

This has even more been the case since my gallbladder recently tried to kill me and I spent several days in a hospital ward with absolutely nothing to do.

I loved recorded music for many years and while studying my HND I started to go to live events. This was how I discovered live and recorded music affected me in a way nothing else does. I felt like Jack-Jack in Pixar’s “The Incredibles” when Kari, his babysitter, puts him in his highchair. She puts on a Mozart CD and says ‘It’s time for a little neurological stimulation’. When she presses play, Jack-Jack stops being distracted, sits up, suddenly becomes focused and it releases his inner powers. This is how music makes me feel. On a normal day, I usually listen to at least one album on my own in the car, this helps me dispel the stresses of the day and calms the deeper turmoil of being the head of my family. Before her life changing accident and subsequent cancer treatment my wife and I jointly shouldered the chores and usual trials and tribulations of life. The disability she has been left with restricts her ability to do a number of things. I’ve taken on those things too.

During college, and the years after, I went to many music performances and enjoyed getting wrapped up in the atmosphere of the performance and of being in a crowd of like-minded people. My wife gets the same feelings from music but also going to see her football team play. As with live music, watching on TV is enjoyable, but being there is infinitely more.

My somewhat eclectic tastes in music – influenced by my brothers’ liking for electronica and the indie band music of the nineties – were powered in my 20s by being able to go to nearly 100 events and having access to multiple independent music stores, as well as the wonderful HMV (our local branch still survives and I bought some more CDs only the other day). Since the demise of many independent music shops I’ve found new music via a number of sources. Steve Lamacq and Lauren Lavern’s Radio Six Music shows (DAB only);music festivals; working with Caffè Nero Live, Talentbanq, Success Express Music and Laurel Canyon Music. Even through social media with the many artists I’ve connected with and through my photography.

As an early adopter of CDs, because I found I could listen to them at home, in the car and on the move, I’ve been collecting CD since I left college and now have access to over 15,000 songs via my iPhone, thanks to iTunes Match. Even today I get CDs, having discovered, through the death of a friend, that a digital only library dies with you rather than being passed on to your heirs.

Out of all of those albums there are a few that are so well produced and written, that paired with my Jaybird wireless ear buds, I am transported into a deep rich soundscape, enveloping my senses and soothing my mind whilst stimulating my inner self. I can’t express why the following give me this feeling – they simply do.

 

Love Over Gold                                                        Famous Blue Raincoat

The Hunter                                                                      Sunday 91

Deleted Scenes…                                                          Revolute

Soft Control                                                                    Tragic Kingdom

Travelling Heart                                                             Elastica

On                                                                                       Carnival Flower

Southside                                                                          Gorillaz

Vienna                                                                                  So

How Men Are                                                                       Addict

 

 

 

 

 

Version 2.0

Not the complete list. However, I think it demonstrates a diverse mix of artists, genres and decades. What I like about the above is not their similarities but how diverse the styles are. However, the common elements are the commitment by the artists, engineers, technicians and producers to produce a dynamic and engaging performance.

An interesting thing to note for Jennifer Warner’s beautiful album: The Hunter, is I find the cover of the Waterboys classic song ‘The Whole of the Moon’, although an acceptable cover, sticks out like a sore thumb compared to the amazing production and feel of the rest album. My understanding is this was done to be the launch single.

Supermarkets selling CDs led to the death of independents by offering very popular CDs at lower prices stealing sales from independents. But they aren’t interested in low volume established acts or new unproven acts. However, if you get involved in the resurgence of the live music scene, you can experience emerging acts with all their passion and drive, in an intimate atmosphere. I’ve been to many smaller venues in recent years, and these are the melting pots for future major acts, I’ve seen new bands at several of the venues the global phenomena such as Ed Sheeran and KT Tunstall started playing at to only a handful of people.

Michael Butterworth

Well, here’s an odd one. This weekend my daughter is working at the Splendour Festival in Nottingham where The Specials are set to play; and here I am in Holmfirth for the Summer Ska Splash, largely featuring music made by the band and their contemporaries, a number of whom are here in Holmfirth today.

Funny old world, the world of the ‘bitza’ band. So The Specials and their spinoffs and satellites tour in a variety of configurations, none of which, at the present time include Jerry Dammers.

Very strange.

Anyway, we are to convene early as it is a half-six kick off courtesy of The Beat Goes Bang, a mash-up of former members of The Beat (namely drummer Everett Morton and guitarist Neil Dethridge;) and a former Dexy (Keyboard player Mickey Billingham) along with Jason Ensa, Sean Williams and Theo Hockley. Once through the preliminaries, the band is already blowing up a storm when we get the first one in and boy, are they a good listen! “Too Nice To Talk To” was always a top-drawer tune and it still sounds fresh today, played with affection and enthusiasm. For me, though, and I guess many of the assembled, “Mirror in the Bathroom” is the highlight, the sax break truly evoking the spirit of Saxa. And that Everett Morton; whack. For any reggae-rooted music to hold water, the drummer seriously has to know what he or she is doing and this guy is quality. His performance underpinned a sharp and well-received set. These lads play with a refreshing enthusiasm and spring in their step and it looks and is infectious fun – and I’m bopping away and it isn’t even half seven yet. Can’t help feeling we’re getting our money’s worth here tonight!

Next up after an ugly and gratuitously foul-mouthed DJ set by one Fat Piggy from Sheffield, Roddy Radiation and the Skabilly Rebels. Monsieur Radiation was the guitarist for The Specials on and off through until 2014; but you can tell his heart was only partly ‘in it’. The Specials were always a sort of punk-ska outfit and the punk influence was always an important part of their appeal; and this guitarist was always at the ‘punkier’ edge of the spectrum. And just to underline this, the first thing they do when they come on is gob in the air. It could have been worse.

Roddy Radiation cuts a dapper figure in blue drapes and crepes and full marks to him, the seemingly unbridgeable gap between punk, ska and rockabilly he seems to cross with ease. The two guitar attack is one beautiful noise especially on “Bonedigging”, “Blues Attack” and “Keep on Learning”; but boy, is he grumpy. ‘I’m Roddy Radiation, apparently,’ he grudgingly concedes and it seems the massed ranks of Ben Shermans, pork pie hats and 2 Tone T shirts have drawn his ire for so many people doing the ‘follower’ thing in terms of dressing up.

Oh, come on.

The gig has been billed as a ‘Summer Ska Splash’. It is Saturday night. Most people are here tonight for a bit of a party. Lighten up, for goodness sake. And anyway, since we seem so keen on upholding the ‘revolt into style’ critique, could I perhaps be permitted to point out that the drapes and crepes thing is also A Style, a similarly mass-produced youth style thing. Once upon a time. You don’t see Elton John spitting out the dummy because half the audience insist on wearing big glasses, do you? Enough, already.

That said, they chop through their set with conviction and yes, there are a few in the audience who can’t quite get to it, find it a bit too ‘rock’. And in the interests of journalistic balance I think I ought to say that some should perhaps be a bit more willing to open minds and ears.

I have to say I absolutely loved it and I probably wasn’t in the majority. He’s some player and his band certainly blow some as well. It is self-evident that this guy and his associates have toured the States extensively and they don’t need anyone to show them how to do the deed. He includes an aggressive and pointy “Rat Race” early in the set and does what for me was the musical highpoint of the entire proceedings in a killer version of “Do Nothing”, for me one of the most underrated Specials songs ever; musically a sort of distorted and creepy version of Keith West’s “Excerpt From a Teenage Opera”, their version has a sort of gothic despair to it.

Absolute tops for entertainment and please don’t stop playing this all night award goes to their fruity and joyful version of Frankie Ford’s “Sea Cruise”, though. Oooohwee, Baby.

Great, but Grumpy.

Which you can’t say about The Neville Staple Band. Departing from The Specials in 2013 allegedly due to ill health, he’s toured his show ever since, mixing The Specials classic repertoire of songs with a few ska faves and hits from the Funboy Three days. From the second they hit the gaffa tape crosses with a joyous, energetic “Gangsters”, the audience singalong of “A Message To You Rudy” through “Swan Lake”, the only duplicate of the entire evening in their version of “Do Nothing”, and the doomy and extremely pertinent “The Lunatics have Taken Over the Asylum”, they were really saying something. Oh – and there’s another one. It was a joyous and happy celebration of a music which still has the power to energize, to uplift, to lively everybody up. And “Ghost Town”. If ever a song hit the nail on the very epicentre of the head at the time, it’s that one. And the onstage rapport between yer main man and his good lady, who acts as chief cheerleader and voice for the notes he isn’t quite equipped to hit, is charming and life-affirming in itself, especially in the context of their terribly sad, grievous and still recent loss.

So would I have preferred to be with daughter at Splendour in Nottingham to see ‘the real thing’ or Holmfirth to see a different spin on ‘the real thing’? Do you want to go and see Brian Wilson or The Beach Boys?

Not really a legitimate or fair question, is it? Holmfirth’s Summer Ska Splash was great fun; and in a way, very ‘real’. You pays your money, you takes your pick.

Steve Jenner’s third book “Loud, Proud and Illegal” is an insider’s view of a fascinating period in British social history when revolt against an increasingly unpopular government was manifested in many ways, some of them linked and following similar trajectories. The rave movement on the dance scene and pirate radio were two aspects of this civil disobedience that had close links and some synergies. Broadly speaking, both movements developed from small-scale barely-legal, operations, escalated rapidly, attracted the wrath of the authorities and eventually became legitimate commercial enterprises. 

“Loud, Proud and Illegal” concentrates on the development of pirate radio in the East Midlands, particularly Nottingham, and carries the authenticity of an author who was part of the phenomenon as broadcaster Jake Burnside. The government of the time was keen to portray pirate broadcasting as lawlessness supported by and supporting other even more heinous types of criminality, but, without getting too deep in to spoiler territory, radio piracy was a civil, not a criminal, offence when the phenomenon started to explode across the country. And to balance this up, it’s fair to say that there was an element of mischief involved with some broadcasters. 

Besides giving us ‘fly-on-the-wall’ access, the book also gives us the benefit of the insights of a highly-respected radio professional as Steve draws parallels between the pirates of the sixties, who forced the BBC to create Radio One as a station that appealed to an emerging market, and the pirates of the late eighties/early nineties who opened the door for the final wave of local UK commercial broadcasting licences. And, you couldn’t plan this, but this book is published just after a bloodless coup has removed most of the local content from the local commercial radio franchises, leaving the majority of those franchises in the hands of multi-national broadcasters. 

As always, Steve’s style is direct, punchy and authoritative. The beauty of “Loud, Proud and Illegal” is that it combines the gritty reality of pirate broadcasting with a penetrating analysis of the situation that led to rise of the pirates and an inside view of the vision that converted illegal operations into successful business models. Original pirate material indeed.  

You can buy it here.

 

Buford Pope’s American influences shine through on “The Waiting Game”. His introduction to American music was Bob Dylan but the most obvious comparison vocally is the high register vocals of Neil Young. There’s a reference in the album’s second song, “Hey Hey Aha”, to the difficulties of songwriting (and a subtle nod to Shakey again) and writer’s block, but the songs all worked out fine in the end and the calling card for “The Waiting Game” is the way they have been arranged. And that’s apparent from the very start. 

America” (a lyrical co-write with Mark Drake) is the collaboration that Neil Young and The Blue Nile haven’t quite got round to yet. It’s an atmospheric love song to America with a big bassline and a new frontier theme with songsters replacing pioneers. The high tenor range of the voice, the melancholy subject matter and the country-rock feel of “Hard Life” make vocal comparisons with Don Henley difficult to avoid, but it’s difficult to see how that’s a bad thing. I mentioned arrangements earlier and the most innovative has to be “A Hundred”. 

The minimalist production is built around a bass drum on one and three and a layered handclap on two and four which repeats remorselessly throughout the song as the blues builds up with the addition of bass and banjo. It hints at the foot stamps of Brian May’s percussion innovation for “We Will Rock You” (a reference you might not expect to hear on an Americana album). Incidentally, a country, honky-tonk reworking of the song, listed as “Ninety-Nine” closes out the album. 

It’s the kind of album that you get when an someone without the baggage of a ‘scene’ or ‘movement’ to contend with (living in a remote part of Sweden) can concoct by taking original American influences and subject matter and melding them with elements from outside this genre to produce something that’s unique. It’s an intriguing listen. 

“The Waiting Game” is out now.